There's no denying the physical components involved in preparing for a performance - being optimized athletically, getting proper nutrition, ensuring rest & recovery are prioritized - but there's also a whole mental aspect that needs to be addressed before you can perform at your best. Let's dig into that here.
Performance week. It's such an exciting time as the finishing touches come together with choreography, the dancers really starts to feel each other and work as a cohesive machine, and you get a thrilling sense of accomplishment as the months of rehearsal take shape in this living, breathing art almost ready to command the stage.
This is the crucial week where you as a dancer need to be as confident as ever in order to put yourself out there, attack your work, take risks, and enhance the nuances unique to your art. Coincidentally, if you’re anything like me, it’s also the time your mental demons ramp up the volume of their searing insults, doing everything in their power to tear you down.
It’s a typical pattern that happens to me. At this point in my career, I’m able to manage my demons’ whispers and keep them in check most of the time to prevent them from dampening my confidence. But as a big performance draws near, those nasty little voices get amplified by nine thousand percent to make sure they are heard. And at a time when I should be fine-tuning my artistry, I start to crumble instead:
- The image I see in the mirror appears distorted.
- I blank out on choreography I've had no trouble with for months.
- My lines feel inadequate and sloppy.
- I fall out of pirouettes I normally nail.
- I stumble over my own feet and lose my flow.
Not exactly the picture of confidence and grace I was hoping for after diligently working on my craft for months in the studio. And all because my demons are no longer whispering but screaming their bloody heads off...relentlessly:
What do you think you are doing? You don’t deserve to be dancing in this company.
You’ve let the choreographers down. They expected so much more from you.
The other dancers are laughing at you and how amateur you look.
The audience won’t even notice you on the stage. You’re so insignificant. You have nothing important or special to share.
You’re doing everything wrong. You’ll surely screw up. What a disappointment you are.
Your thighs are too fat…you don’t look like a dancer! You look like you gained 30 pounds overnight!
Can you relate to any of this?
This is not the constructive fine-tuning you should be applying to your art in these final days before the show - this is delusional nitpicking and self-sabotage at its finest. This pain and self-doubt will cause you to shrink away & second guess every move you make. Instead of being confident from the work you’ve put in leading up to this point (a confidence you’ve earned!), you question everything from the way you look to your ability to pull off the choreography. This hesitation and suspicion of your worth makes you nervous and timid. And when you don’t trust yourself enough to attack your work, you inevitably do end up making mistakes…which only serves to reinforce those demons in your head and perpetuate your downward spiral.
At this point, you have two options:
Let yourself continue to crumble as your demons grow increasingly more obnoxious the closer you get to show time.
Decide not to let these monsters sabotage your performance and shut them down.
FIRST OF ALL, YOU HAVE TO UNDERSTAND WHAT'S HAPPENING HERE. In reality, your demons are just trying to help you. They believe that if they dull your shine, if they keep you small and unseen by slashing your confidence, you won’t have to face ridicule, judgement, or the pain of being rejected by others. They want you to want to hide because they fear what the outside world will think of you. All their criticism is their sick, twisted attempt to keep you safe. (How sweet!)
Especially when you are doing work that really means something to you, that aligns with your purpose, that pushes your boundaries, it can be scary because each new step is a challenge and chance for growth. Your demons don’t know what will happen to you on the other side of that growth once you step out of your comfort zone, so they try to protect you by dragging you back down into the safe zone. You just have to keep reminding them that you don’t want safety - you want passion, fire, exploration and growth - even if it hurts sometimes. Going all in is always worth the risk.
THEN, YOU NEED TO SIT YOUR DEMONS DOWN FOR COFFEE AND HAVE A GOOD, HARD TALK:
Look guys, I realize that underneath all the fear and insults you are slinging at me, you are just trying to protect me. You’re worried that if I put myself out there, lay all my flaws & vulnerabilities on the line...I’ll get rejected and be devastated. I appreciate you trying to help me, but that's not what I need right now. In actuality, the only thing that will devastate me is not giving my all in this performance because my artistry is blocked by your crippling fears. I’ve chosen this path for a reason, and I need to say what I need to say...flaws and all. In order to do that, I need to accept that I'm not perfect...I make mistakes...but all that is a part of my story and art. So, I need embrace being fully present and alive in this performance, show up fully and not hold back.
FINALLY, YOU NEED TO REMIND YOURSELF THAT YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE IN CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE. Why are you so worried about what other people think? You don’t need approval from the outside world to know that you are “good enough.” You have nothing to fear about being judged. Even if the audience boos you off the stage…so what? That doesn’t change who you are or what you are worth. That is something that can only be determined by your own deep wisdom & the actions you take in living your life. You can’t control what others think of you…no matter how hard you try. But you can control how much you choose to show up in your performance, give your all, make yourself vulnerable, and do the work that you know you are here to do. Whether you are booed or applauded doesn’t matter; but not giving your all in something that you are as passionate about as dance will haunt you the rest of your life. Think about that when your demons tempt you to play it safe and hold back.
The next time you have a performance just around the corner and start to feel your demons dragging you down, take a second to acknowledge that you are on a meaningful path pursuing something with the potential to fulfill you (because your demons wouldn't be talking if you weren't being challenged!). Then use this strategy to understand what is going on & talk yourself down off the ledge before things get too far gone. Don’t let these demons prevent you from owning your art.
Photo credit: Marc DeGeorge
Choreography: "Blue" by Gisela Quinteros